Leading Through Language by Bart Egnal
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Communications consultant Bart Egnal writes engagingly about the role that inspiring communication plays in leadership. Drawing upon his experience teaching senior executives to speak effectively, he shows how the terminology you use helps or hinders you as a leader. Many executives find jargon irksome, but continue to use it. Egnal explores why this is so; he explains how to wield jargon as an effective tool and when not to use it at all. He tracks jargon on a spectrum from “useful” to “damaging” while discussing surefire methods for exploiting it effectively. He also discusses ways to harness your use of language to reach your audience, large or small.
In this summary, you will learn
- How the use of jargon can boost or impede leadership,
- How to use or avoid six types of jargon and
- How to use the “language of leadership” and the “leaders’ mind-set” to communicate, persuade and lead.
“The Jargon Spectrum”
Your use of language can help or hinder your leadership. Specialized terminology – such as “jargon, buzzwords and corporate-speak” – suggests an absence of sharp, thoughtful planning or speech writing and can undermine your effectiveness. In fact, the business world uses jargon so often that it hampers real leadership. Many executives find such slang irksome, but can’t stop using it. They believe people take them more seriously if they use high-sounding, insider argot.
Consider the benefits and hazards of jargon by visualizing it on a spectrum. On the “useful” side of the spectrum, you’ll find “shorthand jargon, shared-identity jargon” and “assumption-driven jargon.” On the “damaging” end of the spectrum, speakers might use “obfuscation jargon, inflation jargon” and “lack-of-clarity jargon.”
When Jargon Helps
Every industry and profession has its own terminology that can generate useful jargon. Using shared-identity jargon with people who understand it can foster a sense of belonging. You could build rapport with a fellow insider by using this jargon judiciously. Within an organization, certain specialized terms add up to a common language, a sense of what the organization aspires to and a shared culture.
Making sure people understand your terms is particularly important if you use assumption-driven jargon – where you presume the other person understands and you want to facilitate communication, not impede it. You might use shorthand jargon in the same way. For instance, if you say “EPS” rather than “earnings per share,” you will speed communication with people who understand the acronym or block communication with people who don’t know the code.
When Jargon Hinders
Many professionals make the mistake of believing that the people in their audience understand the same things they understand. This is the “curse of knowledge,” described by linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker in The Sense of Style as “difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.”
Sometimes executives use insider terms because the words sound grand, and yet their audience finds their argot incomprehensible. Executives use overblown language or inflation jargon to appear intelligent and knowledgeable. They use lack-of-clarity jargon when they don’t know precisely what they want to say or because they think speaking in opaque terms masks their lack of preparation. When listeners hear this kind of language, they switch off.
People and organizations use harmful obfuscation jargon to disguise their meaning and “baffle” their listeners. For instance, executives might use the term “layoff,” rather than saying that they plan to fire people. They blur their language to muffle the emotional impact of their actions, yet they risk alienating their audience.
“Adopt the Leader’s Mind-Set”
Executives tend to overestimate the benefits of jargon. When that happens, their communication can confuse people instead of being clear and inspiring. Their lack of clarity wastes a potent opportunity to get others to accept their message and act on it. Managers can learn a different approach. Study the “language of leadership” to energize and motivate your audience. Jettison the gobbledygook, and learn from national leaders like Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and a host of other inspiring speakers. You can also emulate corporate leaders like Warren Buffet and the late Steve Jobs.
You probably have come across many definitions of a leader. If you synthesize them, you arrive at the simple concept that “a leader is someone who inspires others to act.” Effective leaders use language to communicate their thoughts and motivate others. By choosing their words with care, they touch their audience members’ feelings and affect their actions. If you want to motivate and inspire people, adopt a leader’s mind-set. Start by conceptualizing your inspirational vision. Think it out clearly and phrase it in words people can understand. You must believe in your vision. “When you speak from a place of conviction, your language becomes personal, authentic and powerful.” Your goal isn’t to impart data, but to move people’s emotions.
To reach people with the truth, you may have to upset them. You could be in a position that demands telling employees that changing circumstances could threaten their company or their livelihoods. When Steve Jobs came back to lead Apple again in 1997, he “had the courage to say that the company had to stop pursuing most of its products and focus instead on four offerings.”
When you have a leader’s mind-set, you use the language of leadership all the time and not just when you speak before a large audience. As you prepare to address any forum, think about what your audience stands to gain or lose from what you say. If you see your speech from the point of view of your audience members, you will be more likely to use language they understand. You could find adopting that perspective challenging, but it will help you reach your listeners’ “hearts” so they will want to follow you.
“Script Yourself as a Leader”
Like actors who rehearse their “lines,” leaders have to work on their scripts. Think about what you want to convey. Use your script to organize your thoughts so you can share your ideas effectively. If your speech is planned for a future event, you have time to prepare. But even at an impromptu meeting, to sound like a leader, you still must think through what you want to say before you begin. Outstanding speakers work at their speeches. Martin Luther King Jr. was still working on his “I Have a Dream” speech on the day he delivered it.
To clarify what you want to say, use the “Leader’s Script,” a useful template that covers the primary facets of a speech or presentation. The three most important elements are “the subject, the message and the call to action.”
Begin by defining a “clear subject” to set boundaries in your audience members’ minds delineating what you’re going to cover. Next, decide how you will convey your message, the most important element in the Leader’s Script. Choose an overall theme so your listeners can focus. If you pepper your message with too many ideas, you risk losing their attention. Present a “positive” and “engaging” concept that you believe in and can convey sincerely.
Using the language of leadership, end your talk by declaring a call to action. Show leadership by explaining what you want your audience members to do and how you want them to do it. Consider the words you use as a way of achieving your goal of becoming a leader who inspires. Mastering the three main elements of the Leader’s Script makes it clear to your listeners that you’ve prepared yourself to lead. You don’t have to stick rigidly to the script. Tailor your presentations to meet the needs of each specific audience.
Some people prepare their talks meticulously, but when they begin speaking, they put people to sleep. They fail to embrace an important facet of the language of leadership: It is audience-centric. You must know your audience and understand what motivates them in order to reach them. Mentally divide your audience into three groups. The first consists of those you seek to convince. The people in the second group already buy your argument. Members of the last group are those whom you have little chance of influencing. Aim your communication at the first group.
Listen to your audience. For instance, don’t prepare for a meeting based only on what you want to say. Prepare sufficiently to be able to tailor your message to be even more effective after you hear what others say. Being flexible lets you try to understand what your audience members already believe, to sense their emotional state and then to speak to it. That knowledge gives you the ability to present your arguments more persuasively. Use words that show you’ve listened.
“Jargon-Free” and Sincere
Using jargon and clichés can generate uncertainty among your audience members. Trying to figure out what you mean by the insider vocabulary you’re using can tire people and cause them to tune out. That’s why great leaders value clarity. Yet, you may need guts to stop using jargon; refraining from your industry’s argot could call for going against the grain. Nonetheless, strip the buzzwords from your communications. Replace them with words that convey what you want to say. After you remove most of the jargon from your speech patterns, certain terms might stick and prove difficult to remove. If you decide to leave these words in, make sure your audience understands them or explain them.
Speakers often make the mistake of playing to what they think the audience wants to hear and using language that reflects an assumed role. This seldom works. Listeners can tell when something is not quite right – and if they can’t tell right away, they figure it out later. That undermines future encounters. Choose words that reflect what you truly believe. Listen to the words you use in everyday life and put them to work in professional encounters.
Include first-person pronouns to show you believe in what you’re saying. “Using personal language – ‘I,’ ‘we,’ ‘us,’ ‘you,’ and so forth – results in a stronger human connection between you and your listeners.” When you don’t know something, admit it. Revealing your weaknesses makes you more convincing. People distrust those who act as if they know everything.
Dare to Use “Passionate” Language
The words you muster must have passion because you want to move your listeners to action. Leaders must not only persuade their listeners to support an idea, they also must guide them to feel a certain way about that idea. The people in your audience will gauge your emotional commitment to your argument as you try to persuade them to support it.
Most people feel diffident about mustering their passion for public display. They fear they could look like “hucksters,” selling something their audience members may not need. Set that fear aside. Leaders have to play to the audience, much like actors. Decide what you want your audience to do and to believe; then determine how your listeners feel so you can move them to action. If you can use emotion well, you have a potent tool for advancing your goals and message.
Motivating People Requires Clarity and Hope
To motivate your audience, clarify your beliefs as you prepare your speech. This will make you more sure of yourself and of what you want to say. It also will help you select language that shows the depth of your beliefs. That language will give your audience the incentive to accept and act on your message. Motivating people requires creating a hopeful vision of the future. To win your audience, use positive language. If you have bad news, balance it with something optimistic.
Calibrate Your Speech to Fit Your Audience’s Needs and Culture
People today deal with far too much information. If you can figure out exactly what you want to say, you can omit anything superfluous. Concentrate on making sure your audience understands your message. Remove anything that gets in the way, like needless introductions and cumbersome descriptions. Use language that’s appropriate to the occasion and the audience. Different organizations and companies have different cultures. Some pride themselves on keeping things casual. Others seek a more formal atmosphere. Pay attention so you speak appropriately.
Leaders do not need impressive titles or a certain number of employees. Great leadership inspires others to act. No matter what your role or level of seniority, if you can communicate skillfully, that ability gives you the strongest opportunity to lead.